Roy Choi is more than just a native Angeleno; his culinary sensibilities are a part of our culture. Choi's Mexican-Korean fusion food not only speaks to a wide slice of Los Angeles eaters, but the man's Kogi BBQ empire arguably began a mini-revolution that changed the way urban areas thought about restaurants, food, and their own traffic laws.
Years into his empire building, Choi now controls much more than just a few loncheros that sling short rib tacos. His multi-faceted ventures include a Chinatown rice bowl spot we love, a reclaimed IHOP that serves quick and dirty dinner plates, and a South Central juice and smoothie house that's co-run by a giant food corporation. Indeed, Roy Choi is doing it all, while the rest of us just ride along through his twitter account @RidingShotgunLA.
So where do all of Choi's varied interest rank? If you were only going to try one of Roy's places during a long layover in Los Angeles, which should it be? Here, we take a look at each of his establishments, and offer a recommendation on which of his successes are his most important contribution to date.
3 Worlds Cafe
This South Central cafe opened earlier this summer in a vacated coffee house on Central Avenue. Choi's choice of location speaks to the mission of 3 Worlds, which is a three-way operation being triangulated by the nearby low income Jefferson High School, the Dole Packaged Food group, and Choi, who is overseeing the flavors that come from the smallish space. That's three very different worlds, for anyone keeping track at home.
Inside, the cafe is pretty spare. A small room to the back offers basic wooden cafe tables and free wifi for anyone who happens to drop by and wants to do a little internet surfing. The menu itself is perhaps Choi's most straightforward: coffees, lattes and a few basic smoothie blends that wouldn't wow anyone who's ever stepped foot inside a Jamba Juice. But that sort of avoids the point, since Choi is on board basically as a do-gooder with a name, and doesn't spend his time behind the counter blending drinks and thinking up interesting ways to fuss with guava. 3 Worlds Cafe does offer a pretty fantastic pineapple Dole Whip, though, which only makes sense given their corporate supporters.
"It's a simple, ingenious idea: offer Kogi's drunk-friendly food to the people that need it most, right there in the bar"
As another of his collaboration projects, Choi doesn't control the bar at this Westside drinking spot known as The Alibi Room. Instead, his team runs the kitchen, sliding lots of Kogi BBQ truck favorites out of the small order window in the back of the room. It's a simple, ingenious idea: offer Kogi's drunk-friendly food to the people that need it most, right there in the bar. If anything, Choi's push to get into a physical space was among the first jumps from truck to brick-and-mortar in the food truck revolution, albeit an unconventional one. Now, it's the Westside's best way to get a fix of Choi deliciousness.
Ever since Chego up and moved to Chinatown following a leasing issue at their former strip mall location on Overland, Alibi Room is now the go-to spot for a few proprietary rice bowls west of the 101 freeway, as well. For enthusiastic, spicy fusion food that will easily soak up a night's worth of drinking, the Alibi Room is a must visit. It's also perhaps the most underrated of Choi's destinations, considering the foot traffic to A-Frame and elsewhere.
The first full-Choi restaurant on the list, Sunny Spot is Roy's Venice hangout, a casual lunch and brunch space with ample patio seating and a run of great tunes coming from the bar. And it's not far from the beach, which is always a plus.
Sunny Spot is chef Choi's take on the surf and sand foods of the Caribbean islands, where jerk chicken and papaya both receive a good amount of love on the menu. Dinner plates range from a Jamaican-spiced roast lamb, the obvious braised pork belly and sandwiches like the two-fisted cheeseburger, which may be the best burger in Choi's multi-restaurant arsenal. Other options, like the playful Muh-F**K'n Mofongo, takes fresh plantains and overloads them with ginger, bacon, fennel, garlic and a splash of rum.
But since Sunny Spot is so perfectly a brunch restaurant (just try getting a seat when the sun is shining and the bottomless mimosas start pouring), there are handover plates of fried rice and black beans, blueberry pancakes with sesame seeds and jerk-spiced potatoes that stand in for the normal pile of home fries. These may not be Choi's most prolific interpretations, but it's hard to argue with the place when the patio, the spices and the sunshine all align for you.
When LA asked Roy Choi for a suitable dinner destination, he gave them A-Frame in Culver City. Just steps from the high-end British pub Waterloo & City and the casual cocktail dinner spot The Corner Door, A-Frame feels like a perfect combination for the neighborhood. The light blonde wood walls and $20+ entrees skew A-Frame as a finer dining restaurant than it is, but the cheap happy hour (including $3 Hite beers) are decidedly for the people.
Even Choi's menu is playful but upscaled. There are grilled sardines in an herbed salad with a tomato confit, or roasted duck breast and pickled kumquats. The $12 double cheeseburger is hearty and enjoyable, but for anyone giving A-Frame a shot for the first time, it's best to stick with the beer can chicken. Offered as a half or whole, the bird is exceedingly crispy at the skin, with plenty of remaining juice to float around the plate and into your kimchi. Of course, there's a prickly salsa verde served on the side, along with a century egg, because why not?
Happy hour further confuses things (in a good way) with $5 wines by the glass, $7 cocktails like The Trick that bring in tequila, ginger and lemongrass, while the $7 Surfer's spam sandwich is made in-house, but seems more suited to Sunny Spot's brunch menu than anywhere else. For Choi'rs looking to take a date or a parent, A-Frame is worth the drive. Just remember: they don't take reservations.
Now we're talkin'. For great eats, a cool environment, and uniquely Roy Choi flavors, you can't beat Chego. Formerly of a strip mall just north of Culver City, Chego was forced to move downtown after some issues with the building they were occupying, and temporary displacement into a Chego-wrapped truck in the parking lot. Now the Chinatown station is up and running seamlessly, offering the same spicy, meaty rice bowls from inside the Far East Plaza. Seating is almost entirely limited to picnic tables outside, there's a hush-hush BYOB policy (and liquor store around the corner) and the storefront next door sells bootleg DVDs. It's all so perfect.
Best of all, Choi's hit list of Chego menu favorites didn't fall off the moving truck on the drive over. Those Ooey Gooey Fries are still there, beer-battered and smothered with a sour cream samba sauce and lots of chiles to give off some heat, while three kinds of cheese cool things down a bit. Other favorites include the Chubby Pork Belly bowl, which is stacked with thick pork belly rashers, Korean chile paste, Thai basil, water spinach and lots of Chinese broccoli. And you're going to get a fried egg on top, whether you asked for it or not. Chego is that kind of place. And if you plan ahead, you can get your rice bowl to go and enjoy it from the bleachers at nearby Dodgers Stadium, which is an incredible way to spend an afternoon or early evening in Los Angeles.
While Chego and A-Frame hold much of Choi's current passions, anyone who has yet to visit a Roy Choi destination has to start with the Kogi BBQ truck. And not just the short rib tacos or the blackjack quesadilla from the Alibi Room; you've got to track down a truck, stand on the sidewalk and eat with your hands in the street. After all these years, it's still the best way for newcomers to enjoy Choi and his genre-bending fusion food.
If anything, Choi's Mexican-Korean interpretations from the Kogi trucks seem downright tame in today's market. But it's important to remember the beginning of it all, when the chef was hawking his marinated short rib tacos in Hollywood to anyone willing to give his truck a chance. A few more Kogi trucks, a restaurant empire, and a national food truck revitalization that changed the face of fast casual eating for a few years, and Choi's Kogi BBQ is still going strong. If you've never been, it's not too late. And if you've been before, don't feel bad about checking in once in a while. There's still something simple and addicting about the food that made Roy Choi famous.